From all directions we are overwhelmed today by categorical statements about the decline of literature in all its traditional forms and the urgent need to fashion a new mode of literary sensibility, one appropriate to an age dominated by cataclysmic visions and a spiritually empty universe. We have been told for decades that the novel, for example, is either dying as a viable literary form or in a state of protracted invalidism. Almost all of these gloomy predictions are predicated on certain assumptions taken as axiomatic, assumptions not always critically examined to determine their validity or their applicability to contemporary conditions and to what we know of human nature and the history of man in the modern world.


Of these assertions, one of the most common is the claim that ours is a unique age governed by unique conditions, fears, and expectations that forever divorce us from the climate of opinion and systems of belief prevalent in preceding periods. Warner Berthoff writes that “the literary enterprise itself has changed, and in fundamental ways, since the American modernists finished their work, and that certain traditional conceptions of the goal of literary workmanship–and of the authority and value of perfected achievement–have fairly completely disintegrated.”(1) In discussing the alleged death of romanticism in modern literature and art, Wylie Sypher has said that “our recent literature–or a–literature–proves that romanticism is unnecessary. Further, it may prove that most preceding literature and art, like most preceding ethics, has been romantic in one way or another.”(2)

Frederick Karl believes that

   while we all agree that the older great writers still move us profoundly,
   their vision in its particulars cannot appeal to us: Dostoyevsky was a
   reactionary, religious fanatic; Conrad, an anti-liberal; Lawrence, for
   blood, not social action; Mann, a disillusioned nationalist; Hesse, a
   mystic who recommended asceticism. ... They are too idealistic for us.(3)

In his Nobel Prize address, William Faulkner said, “Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: when will I be blown up?” Mary McCarthy has stated that the horrors of the twentieth century put to shame the nineteenth-century novelist’s interest in small-town life, “the finite scandals of the village and the province; who cares any more what happens in Highbury or the Province of 0-?”(4) What, in essence, is being claimed? Is it true that the literature of the past has no relevance to us and the age we live in?

  • First, we might ask whether the types of characters in the eighteenth-and nineteenth-century novel are, indeed, obsolete, irrelevant? Is it true that there are no more Emma Bovarys pining for romance and glamour? No more Ivan Karamazovs enraged at senseless brutality and injustice? No Becky Sharps exploiting their feminine charms to make it in society? No Julien Sorels burning with ambition, determined to conquer Paris and assert themselves in the jungle of competitive forces? No Ahabs tearing blindly in pursuit of the truth behind the mask of Moby Dick? Are the pictures drawn by Balzac and Flaubert and Alphonse Daudet and others of French society so dissimilar from what we see and hear in our everyday lives? Are the motives, behavior, and ambitions of Jane Austen’s characters altogether incomprehensible to us when we look at ourselves and our associates?
  • Huckleberry Finn’s dream of freedom and joy has not perished, if for no other reason than that its symptoms are everywhere flagrantly evident in commercial advertising. Ralph Nickleby’s obsession with wealth has clearly not vanished from our world. Nor has the conflict within Bazarov between his materialistic ideas and his ability to love. Is Victor Hugo’s Javert not living among us, a man possessed by an inhuman passion for legal justice and retribution? Are there no more Pips obsessed with Great Expectations who, in their youthful infatuation with success, are ready to slight friends in their pursuit of wealth and social position? No more women like Hardy’s Tess struggling against the crushing weight of forces beyond theft comprehension and control? No Pecksniffs fatuously wallowing in theft own moral purity and self-righteousness?


Have the motives and maneuvers and alliances described in Trollope’s political novels altered so greatly that they no longer characterize the ways in which political life is lived? When Balzac recreates a society in which power, money, and amorality rule, are we not being incredibly naive when we claim that our contemporary world is significantly different? The picture of French society writ large in the works of Stendhal, Balzac, Daudet, and Anatole France is surely not a picture of charity and compassion, noble idealism, justice tempered by mercy, love and integrity, or concern for the individual.

What the great Russian novelists of the nineteenth century show us is hardly evidence of a kind and gentle world informed by ethical principles and generosity of spirit. The compulsive and destructive passions that ravage Dostoevsky’s characters, the emptiness and futility everywhere underscored in Tolstoy’s works, and the quiet melancholy pervading Turgenev’s novels and stories are vivid reminders of the tragic incomprehensibility of life as we know it today. Raskolnikov’s anguish and fear, his warped rationality and grim determination to prove he is a superior being, are not without tragic analogues in the life of our time.

We remember a passage in Bellow’s Dangling Man:

   I recall the words of the suitor Luzhin in Crime and Punishment. He has
   been reading the English economists, or claims he has. "If I were to tear
   my coat in half," he says, "in order to share it with some wretch, no one
   would be benefited. Both of us would shiver in the cold." And why should
   both shiver? Is it not better that one should be warm? An unimpeachable

No one would seriously argue that the novels of Zola reassure us that man can be the master of his destiny by overcoming the determinative influences of heredity and environment. Nor can we find much solace in Melville and Hawthorne, whose uncompromising candor about man and his fate offers little hope that we can ever fully understand the enigma of life and the perilous precipice on which all of us live.


The nineteenth-century novel is as pitiless and unrelenting as ours is in exposing greed, inhumanity, loneliness, frustration, ignorance, vanity, fear, meaninglessness. Even the gentle Daudet was not blind to the dehumanizing ruthlessness of his society. And no one needs to be reminded of what Dickens had to say in his novels about the law, education, the business world, religious hypocrisy, domestic tyranny, man’s incredible inhumanity to man.

  • Who would be naive enough to deny that what we learn of man in the nineteenth-century novel is as true today as it was then? What is conspicuously missing in the serious novelists of that age is the self-confident liberal idealism of the utopian social prophets who rapturously proclaimed the coming of a perfect society. When we smile condescendingly at Victorian prudery and the vaporous optimism of a Herbert Spencer, we would do well to remember that the nineteenth-century novelist was not an ardent believer in inevitable progress and the coming of the millennium, but a realist not easily mollified by grandiloquent phrases and social blueprints for the future.

It would be ingenuous indeed, remembering what we see of man in the nineteenth-century novel, to believe that all men then lived in an atmosphere of faith and certainty while, by contrast, modern man has lost all faith in himself and the institutions that govern his life. When we read the nineteenth-century novel searching for modes of institutional faith that give life meaning and direction, we find, instead, uncertainty and a profound and disturbing sense of unease and apprehension.

  • When we assume that at least in the nineteenth century man had something to believe in while we do not, we confess to an ignorance of what the novelists reveal in their works. Writing of Balzac’s novel The Rise and Fall of Cesar Birotteau, Frederick Green notes that “the ordinary ethical standards have no meaning in this society, which is not a society but an assemblage of opportunists unrestrained by any moral code, ignorant of any law save that of experience which has taught them that to yield to an impulse of generosity or mercy may result in social annihilation.”(6) George Sand’s love of nature and the simple pieties of benevolence and charity and Victor Hugo’s liberalism and passion for justice are personal affirmations in a period of growing materialism and institutional apathy and inertia.

Though there are kind and gentle souls in the nineteenth-century novel, much goodness and compassion, there is no conclusive proof that ethical imperatives and religious sanctions were any more influential on men’s lives than they have ever been. Men no more lived their daily lives by faith in the nineteenth century than they had in previous centuries. Life was just as hard, brutal, and confusing for many of the characters in Dickens as it had always been. We do not finish reading the nineteenth-century novel convinced that the world had at last learned how to live by just and enlightened ethical and religious values. The lives of the privileged in Tolstoy’s works were just as hollow, pointless, and decadent as are the lives of the privileged today.


The lives of the wealthy Daudet describes in The Nabob belong not to one society but to every privileged society man has ever known. Are the rich in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s works a different breed, a new race, totally unlike the rich in Balzac and Tolstoy and Daudet? Are there in the nineteenth-century novel no wasted lives, no massacre of the innocents, no hopelessness, no blatant hypocrisy, no unscrupulous exercise of power, no avariciousness, nothing even remotely resembling the personal lives men lead in our century?

If the nineteenth-century novel has nothing to tell us about our own lives, why, then, have so many scholars and critics devoted their professional lives to it? What motive (except professional ambition) compels them to devote so much time, energy, and thought to a literature that is outdated, anachronistic? Would it not be the height of credulity to conclude that this massive outpouring ofresearch, scholarship, and criticism represents nothing more than an antiquarian interest, a sterile exercise in pedantry, a whimsical excursion into the past whose sole reward is the pleasure of digging up dead bodies?

Yet few serious scholars and critics discuss nineteenth-century literature as though it were an Egyptian mummy, the vestigial remains of an ancient civilization. Most assume that the great writers of the nineteenth century have something important to tell us about ourselves and the nature of human existence. Is it possible that they are woefully mistaken, victims of some grotesque illusion?

Our involvement in the great nineteenth-century novels is not an innocent pastime, the pleasure of a moment, a merciful release from the terrors of our own age, a disembodied aesthetic delight we quickly forget, but a sense of heightened awareness, an imaginative experience of genuine significance to us as human beings.

Who, after reading “Bartleby” or Billy Budd or Moby Dick, can honestly conclude that those works tell us nothing of what we are and what we face confronted by the riddle of life? Who can come away from War and Peace convinced that though it may be great “literature,” the society it depicts already belongs to an obsolete civilization whose inhabitants were not our fellow human beings? We are not wandering among societies whose faces we do not recognize, whose language we cannot decipher, whose passions and fears find no echoes in our minds and hearts, whose conflicts we are thoroughly baffled by.

Who has evoked the horror of death more powerfully than Tolstoy? The terrifying reality of homelessness more eloquently than Dickens? The lust for power more frighteningly than Balzac? The implacable course of fate more grimly than Hardy? The hunger for selfhood and love more movingly than Dostoevsky? If these mean that much to us imaginatively, by what logic do we pronounce them irrelevant to the twentieth century and to our own sense of life?



The conclusion that ours is a unique age rests on a number of propositions that are open to serious question. There is, first, the proposition that absolute knowledge, presumed essential to any kind of living faith, is impossible in our time. For many modern writers the traditional assumption that through experience, reason, and goodwill man has the power to discover the truth about himself and his condition and the nature of human experience is an illusion, a falsehood, a dangerous ideal.

Despite the massive accumulation of knowledge in the past few centuries, our writers and critics insist that all knowledge is contingent, tentative, even, at times, contradictory, elusive, which accounts for the extensive use among our writers of irony, parody, burlesque, caricature, and other literary techniques to give creative expression to the epistemological swamp in which we seem to be mired. Reason itself is deceptive. Science rests on premises that are debatable. Our sensory experience is subject to distortion and uncertainty. Tradition and culture are chimerical guides to the truth, made even more questionable by a widespread belief in relativism in all its forms. Language is no longer reliably denotative, precise, but evocative, ambiguous. All the absolutes of the past seem to disintegrate the more closely they are subjected to scrutiny. How, then, we are asked, can one seriously contend that man has the ability to know the truth about anything?

But this proposition is clearly suspect on a number of grounds. First, it is itself an absolute with respect to its subject, claiming to know something that the very terms of its arguments cannot logically support. When we say that we can never really know anything, we have made a statement about knowledge that is a form of knowledge, that evidences our ability to reach a reasoned conclusion on the subject.

  • Second, though knowledge of absolutes, whatever they are, may be unattainable, this in no sense invalidates whatever provisional knowledge and wisdom we have arrived at through experience and reflection. When Socrates said that he did not know what justice or temperance was, he was not claiming that in the search for definitions nothing of any value was learned. The dialectic that informsPlato’s dialogues at the very least led to a reasoned rejection of certain definitions and their implications, and clarified and strengthened the critical faculty Socrates employed so effectively. The game was certainly worth the candle, though no absolutes emerged, for the most part, and Socrates was as puzzled at the conclusion as he had been at the beginning about the exact nature of justice or temperance.
  • Third, it would be presumptuous to assert that the greatest achievements of the past, in art and culture and philosophy, are irrelevant to the condition of man in our own time because they failed to reveal and authenticate absolute truths we can accept. If we can never really know certainty, how do we know Plato or Aquinas or Descartes was wrong? Are we willing to state categorically that nothing from our heritage is relevant or instructive? If we carry the notion of absolute truth into the world of art, what kind of absolute truth are we looking for? Theories about the nature and value of artistic works contradict one another. Shall we reject them all? Even if we were successful in identifying and accepting an absolute truth about art, it would almost inevitably require the rejection of certain artistic works that have long since been acclaimed as masterpieces.

Do we consign Dante to oblivion because we may not share his religious faith? Or Lucretius because we do not believe in Epicureanism? Is Milton’s Areopagitica worthless in the nuclear age because writers are free to express anything they wish? Or Wordsworth’s The Prelude because few today have ever experienced that mystical union with nature so magnificently evoked in it?

What we learn from the past may not unlock the Golden Door of Truth, but it is surely precious to anyone who prizes the gift of life, the gift of the mind and the imagination, the gift of beauty and eloquence, and whatever truths about ourselves we can master.

  • Fourth, what evidence is there that man is unable to live a full life unless he possesses absolute knowledge and absolute faith? Are all other pleasures and values vitiated because they have no center, no hub from which they radiate? Is friendship impossible because we can know fully the most intimate essence of the self in another person? Are we, therefore, to declare unequivocally that we know nothing of that other person? Must we reject, as so many protagonists in modern literature do, love and friendship because they are flawed and ultimately resistant to any absolute status?

Some years ago Paul Elmer More criticized what he called “The Demon of the Absolute,” an obsession with absolute standards and absolute truths:

   It is with tradition as it is with standards: because tradition is not
   absolute and infallible, men are prone to cry out that there is no
   tradition. That is a habit deep-rooted in human nature, hard to eradicate.
   No intelligent man supposes that tradition is a scale fixed once and
   forever in all its nuances of valuation; but it is a simple matter of
   history, nevertheless, that a long tradition of taste does exist, wavering
   and obscure on its outskirts, growing steadier and more immutable as we
   approach its center.(7)



If anything, modern writers appear to know a great deal about people, life, society, the world they inhabit. If what they know were impossible to know, they could not write. If they do write, they know something worth communicating and sharing.

When Montaigne said that he did not know what Truth is, did that prevent him from reading and reflecting, from writing essays that tell us a great deal about human nature that is certainly worth knowing? Montaigne is forever reminding us of how contradictory his emotions and thoughts are, how fickle he is, how an aching corn on his toe turns him rude and surly: “When I occupy myself with books, I may perceive in a certain passage excellent graces which touch my soul; let me return to it another day–to no purpose do I turn it this way and that, to no purpose do I twist and manipulate it–it is an obscure and shapeless lump to me.”(8) Had he retreated into despair at the provisional nature of what he knew, he would never have written his essays, and we would have been denied the work of perhaps the greatest essayist who ever lived.

To describe life in a novel as chaotic, destructive, discontinuous, infuriating is to manifest a clear, though sometimes disguised, respect for their opposites, those conditions that, though rare, are yet according to the writer preferable to the stubborn irrationality of the human condition.

Those writers who assume an attitude of profound disengagement from life because of its horror and confusion are inevitably prisoners of their own choice. However mercilessly they may expose the inherent contradictions of human motive and action, they are driven, ultimately, to one of two conclusions. Either life is totally inaccessible to order and humanness, or else order and humanness are fabrications of the individual consciousness to create a reason for living. The first alternative, if accepted, must be true to its own nihilistic vision of life and cannot, in all seriousness, continue to demand or sentimentalize over those very qualities it may wish to see realized in human relationships but that are, by the logic of this position, forever closed to man. But this is precisely what many of our writers cannot bring themselves to recognize or accept manfully. They are forever cataloguing the sins of the twentieth century without frankly discarding the sentimental idealism that haunts them.


Continuing dissection of the hypocrisy, inhumanity, greed, and savagery of our age is never totally disencumbered of the pathos of idealistic dreams, of a spiteful resentment against an age in which hopes and aspirations and the need for selfhood are almost casually destroyed. Even were there truth in this vision of our time, it is woefully unbalanced, and is itself a refutation of any claim that life is empty and sterile by its very nature, for any nihilistic ravaging of human experience by the writer undermines the very complexity of human nature and the human condition that the writer is at such pains to convince us is the “final” truth about what we are.

To overwhelm the reader with overpowering evidence that man is weak, selfish, often predatory, alienated, anonymous, a grubby creature blind to beauty and compassion and self-fulfillment is to prejudice one’s ease through sheer irrelevance, to conveniently ignore what every human being knows, those irrefutable examples of generosity, strength, intelligence, and magnanimity that form part of the enigma we call human nature. If life is, indeed, complex and contingent, does this logically suggest that acts of kindness and love are in themselves either illusory or unimportant or necessarily contaminated by vanity and ulterior motives?

When Hamlet says that man is both an angel and a demon, we show little respect for the truth if we abrogate one of these terms, confer on man the demon a measure of importance and influence we withhold from the angel. Does not the professedly disengaged writer commit himself to a philosophy of demonism whose only alternative would be the miraculous establishment of a world in which charity, brotherhood, and joy are endowed with the qualities of permanence, authority, and limitless influence? Biff Loman discovers that his father goes to bed with another woman and is shattered because Willy Loman is not perfect in his fidelity, because, in brief, he is a weak and fallible human being. Biff’s reaction is nausea, disgust, and hatred of his father. Like Ishmael, modern writers have peered too long into the demonism of the try-works. They have forgotten the larger world within which we all live, have retreated into creating stereotypes of the alienated hero or the alienated scapegoat and overlooked the very complexity of character and situation they so zealously postulate as the condition of the modern consciousness.


To turn to almost any of the major characters in the works of George Eliot and Dostoevsky is to realize how compulsively contemporary writers have discounted the complex reality of the individual consciousness, shorn it of its subtlety and contradictions, and reduced it to still another expression of contemporary despair and anxiety. The angst of isolation is repeatedly presented as something of momentous importance in our time.

Even were the self irrevocably confined to its own private world, why is that necessarily taken as a sign of despair, anger, or meaninglessness? If Camus and others are correct when they assert that each of us must recognize and accept that aloneness, why do we promptly conclude that this fact is either tragic or cause for despair? Knowing that others will probably never be able to share this self in no respect necessitates the conclusion that the self is thereby worthless or powerless to learn or incapable of thinking, questioning, living, joying, discovering its own personal values?

The privateness of the self is sometimes viewed as a tragic limitation, a cause for sorrow and pessimism. It should more properly and realistically be regarded as our natural condition, the condition of every thinking and sensitive person, that in no vital sense bars us from being, learning, strengthening our powers of insight and knowledge. The aloneness of the self connotes no necessary rejection of life, no necessary relapse into cynicism and self-pity, no necessary rage at discontinuity, injustice, or materialism in all its manifestations.

Charles Lamb was, I suspect, a man very much aware of his aloneness, even when he cared for his unfortunate sister, but this did not in the least diminish the richness of his inner life, his love of London and the theater, of the past, of his own reverence for life. Though confined to a filthy barracks and living among hardened criminals, Dostoevsky in his aloneness listened, learned, responded, kept his conscience and inner self alive.

Joseph Frank is surely correct when he argues that something of enormous importance happened to Dostoevsky in prison: “What occurred to Dostoevsky, then, bears all the earmarks of a genuine conversion experience; and it also involves, as we see, a recovery of faith. But it is not faith in God or Christ that is in question; rather, it is a faith in the Russian common people as, in some sense, the human image of Christ.”(9) One of the miraculous changes was Dostoevsky’s newfound ability to identify with the prisoners:

   By the end of his prison term, then, Dostoevsky had swung round full circle
   in his estimate of the majority of his fellow inmates; and though his sense
   of estrangement as a gentleman could not be completely overcome, he was now
   able to identify himself with the others, morally and emotionally, to a far
   greater extent than he had ever thought possible.(10)


In his book Contemporary American Novelists of the Absurd (1971), Charles Harris argues that “the belief that ours is an absurd universe, chaotic and without meaning, is perhaps the dominant theme of the modern American novel.”(11) The first sentence of his study claims that “the absurdist vision may be defined as the belief that we are trapped in a meaningless universe and that neither God nor man, theology nor philosophy, can make sense of the human condition.” The contention is made that Vonnegut’s novels express “Vonnegut’s growing resignation to the futility of caring as a viable response in an absurd world,”(12) but Harris appears to contradict this at the end of the chapter on Vonnegut when he writes that “though Vonnegut’s angle of vision has become increasingly absurdist, it remains steadfastly comic. Never does he give way to despair or empty cynicism. He has managed to face the absurdity of the human condition squarely without losing his concern for humanity or his sense of humor.”(13) If, despite his resignation and ironic diagnosis of the human condition, Vonnegut can retain “his concern for humanity,” then the implicit corollaries of the absurdist position are rendered irrelevant. One cannot, on the one hand, assert the futility of caring for mankind and then, on the other, retain a conviction of the need to care, for such caring has no logical ground, no reason for being, no corroboration in human experience.

Harris discusses at some length entropy in the fiction of Thomas Pynchon and concludes with the statement that “Pynchon seems to desire a radical freedom, an anarchist ball where one dances to his own rhythms, not to the ritualized beat of mass society.”(14) If this is, in fact, true of Pynchon’s works, then Pynchon is obviously not advocating the absurdist position but hearkening back to Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” and the long tradition of radical freedom for the individual so splendidly advocated in Walden.

Advocating the doctrine of radical freedom for the individual is hardly a philosophical endorsement of meaninglessness and the death of the individual, or the acceptance of a carnivorous society that annihilates the subjective imperatives of the individual consciousness. However difficult it may be today to discover and assert the self, the commitment to individualism is itself a moral act resting on a refutation of total despair and anonymity.

Of John Barth’s Sot-Weed Factor, Harris says that Henry Burlingame does indeed subscribe to the notion that “the very universe is naught but change and motion,”(15) but we are told that Barth is unwilling to let the matter rest there. Harris believes that “Burlingame … represents the only viable stance for man in an absurd world,”(16) yet that stance is informed and sustained by Burlingame’s enormous hunger for life, his intuitive immersion in experience, his vitality, that e1an that makes mockery of philosophical resignation and the shallow cynicism that denies the possibility of a fervent individualism. Though Burlingame adopts any number of roles and disguises, he cannot bring himself to negate his hunger for experience, and in that hunger lies a subjective disavowal of cynicism, meaninglessness, and discontinuity. Faith is a matter of temperament, in this case, not an analytical diagnosis of the world’s ills, its horrors and stupidity, its shams and greed.

  • When Harris notes of Donald Barthelme’s work Snow White that “in writing a novel devoid of `meaning’ in the traditional sense of that term, Barthelme denies the possibility of meaning in an absurd world,”(17) he is implying more than he states. If the novel is sophisticated camp, an elaborate parody, its ironic absurdity is not a denial of meaning in a traditional or a nontraditional sense, an admission of the existence of chaos. In its artistic shaping it gives form that in art is one kind of meaning if one predicate of meaning is order. In addition, parody is itself a recognition of reality, what exists, what is there. If a serious writer acknowledges the real by enshrining it in a serious work of art, he thereby tacitly accepts its importance, its relevance to his audience and to himself, though the meaning of that importance may be obscure or even repellent.
  • To succeed artistically in giving form to chaos is to afford us knowledge of that chaos in an ordered mode of expression, a sense of its nature and consequences, a feeling for that particular situation, the assumption being that such understanding is important. When we casually invoke the cliche of meaninglessness, we rarely take time to examine precisely what we mean by it, and we deny one of the obvious truisms of all significant art–that the experience of art is deep and moving though, at times, difficult to reduce to logical propositions.

In discussing James Purdy’s novel Malcolm, Harris states that “on a thematic level, the stilted artificiality of the prose reflects the hollow meaninglessness of Purdy’s absurd world,”(18) yet on the preceding page Harris writes that in this novel “the result is not the obscuration of meaning, but the generation of meaning.” By what tortuous line of reasoning does one assert that a novel has and has not meaning? If what Purdy does in this work is to expose the alleged meaninglessness of life, the meaning of his novel is clear. In short, it has a meaning, a point of view, a statement of philosophical import, an ethical judgment. The enigma of life is not something discovered by modern writers, and it should not delude us into asserting that in consequence of our perception of the enigma we must conclude that life has no meaning.


What becomes obvious in much of our criticism of modern fiction is an intellectual inclination to underscore the emptiness and sordidness of the contemporary world and to draw certain conclusions that are, to say the least, premature and sometimes contradictory. If modern man is seen as a unique creature doomed to irrelevance, we thereby discount the value of all literature and all art and the entire heritage of civilized man. We view the sorry and dismal history of the twentieth century as tolling the death knell of man’s soul and proceed to draw certain conclusions that either do not follow from our assumptions or else tend to invalidate those assumptions.

If man today is, indeed, unique and the wisdom of the past cannot help him in his desperate loneliness, then what assurance do we have that in another generation or two there will not emerge a man totally different from the one we know? If each age can understand only itself, then we have blindly accepted a proposition that in its absolute character is refuted by experience and common sense and everything we know of the history of man.

In so many of our novels we encounter protagonists who are fictional representations of this very rejection of past experience, particularly in the American novel, in which the past is regarded as either irrelevant or constricting and dangerous. Contemporary protagonists are cut off from the past, from their surroundings, from everything human, and made to serve the writer’s assumption that the individual is forever trapped in his own loneliness and psychic impotence. At the end of Bellows novel, Herzog ponders his dilemma: “My face too blind, my mind too limited, my instincts too narrow.

But this intensity, doesn’t it mean anything?”(19) Communing with some of the great minds of the past, poor Herzog has apparently learned nothing of any importance about who he is and what he can become and why living matters. The last words of the novel are: “At this time he had no messages for anyone. Nothing. Not a single word.”

So runs the litany of doom so pervasive in our literature, aided and abetted by scholars and critics who write exhaustive tomes ostensibly proving that all is lost for modern man. We have been engaging in a self-fulfilling prophecy without having the courage to examine carefully and realistically the very assumptions on which such monumental conclusions rest.


We are still the victims of nineteenth-century romanicism. Every contemporary protagonist shares Childe Harold’s fate, that Byronic isolation and contempt for the world that, in our own age, degenerates too often into maudlin self-pity and willful immaturity. The rather facile assumption that modern man has outgrown romanticism needs to be looked at closely. One critic writing in the sixties went so far as to conclude that

   Romanticism is by now abroad in all its traditional forms, and
   proliferating: Dream on the SILK (by, online store selling best sewing machine for beginners), Youth in Rovolt (Kerouac and others of the Beat group;
   England's Angry Young Men), Glorification of Energy, and Passion Unconfined
   (the Picaresque romps of Saul Bellow and J.P. Donleavy), the Unleashed
   Imagination (Thomas Pynchon, Joseph Heller), Social Protest (James Baldwin
   and others above), and of course, the Cult of the Self, which so baffles
   the classicist critic (J.D. Salinger has certainly out-Wordsworthed
   Wordsworth here, drawing upon himself new Jeffreys, as has to a lesser
   degree Norman Mailer).(20)

At a time when man has far more freedom than he ever had, far more knowledge than his ancestors ever dreamed of, far more opportunity to explore himself, far more awareness of the paradoxical nature of life, he perversely concludes that life has no meaning, that man is withering within himself, that the wellsprings of joy and being are permanently poisoned at their source. The contemporary writer is like a peevish child sulking in his room because life is hard and brutal, enervated by a spiritual listlessness that blinds him to what human beings are and can be. The lack of charity in so many contemporary works is not in the least contradicted by the sorry fate of so many protagonists compulsively trapped in their own piteous aloneness. The pathos in Jack Kerouac’s works stems from the apparent inability of his various personae to make any real contact with others, to grow up, to mature.

Writing of American fiction in the period from 1950 to 1970, Tony Tanner has noted that “loss of communication rather than loss of private vision is an option many American writers have preferred. But the suspicion of other people’s visions and versions, and the attempt to resist and extrude them, seems to dominate American fiction of the past two decades in a way which differentiates it from the work of previous periods.”(21)

At the source of this desperate effort to preserve the private self is the assumption that the protagonist is so alienated from others that he can never enjoy the bliss of intimacy and oneness with another human being. If this is true, as we have said, how can the protagonist be certain that what he feels and suffers and dreams of is not shared by others? If communication is virtually impossible, why should Holden Caulfield and “Rabbit” Angstrom conclude that their frustration and aloneness are not also experienced by those they criticize, those who repel them?

The romantic assumption that a particular protagonist is radically different from other characters can hardly be substantiated if the dogma of absolute aloneness is uncritically accepted as the necessary condition of human existence. What special qualities of mind or temperament or sensibility does the protagonist possess that make him believe he is somehow more richly endowed than others? What, after all, is so special about Herzog that we should bemoan his wasted life? What exactly is being wasted? Have we too easily succumbed to the notion that the protagonist is like those Thomas Gray refers to in his famous “Elegy”:

   Full many a gem of purest ray serene, The dark unfathomed caves of ocean
   bear: Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, And waste its sweetness
   on the desert air.

When the protagonist is completely ignorant of what he wants and why, it is ludicrous to demand that the world somehow cater to him or to believe that he is made of finer stuff than ordinary mortals.

Furthermore, why should the modern protagonist castigate greed and hypocrisy, vanity and cruelty, the beast in human nature? Why should we assume that our world should be cleaner and purer than the world Juvenal describes in such scathing terms? What leads him to think that human nature should in our time have been cleansed of its very nature? As Hawthorne pointed out in his short story “Earth’s Holocaust,” we cannot purify the human race by destroying everything evil and leaving the human heart as it is. As the dark-visaged stranger in the story says at the end:

   "And, unless they hit upon some method of purifying that foul cavern, forth
   from it will reissue all the shapes of wrong and misery--the same old
   shapes or worse ones--which they have taken such a vast deal of trouble to
   consume to ashes. I have stood by this livelong night and laughed in my
   sleeve at the whole business. O, take my word for it, it will be the old
   world yet!"

If the modern protagonist were able to shape out of the chaos of contemporary life a real self, he would be doing all that it is possible for an individual to do, but, tragically, he apparently cannot or will not. We are told in Reflections in a Golden Eye by Carson McCullers that “the mind of Private Williams was imbued with various colors of strange tones, but it was without delineation, void of form.”(22) Sherwood Anderson wrote in Tar: “How are you going to understand women when you cannot understand yourself?. How are you ever going to understand anyone or anything?”(23) Of Vivaldo in James Baldwin’s novel Another Country, we are told that “the great question that faced him this morning was whether or not he had ever, really, been present at his life.”(24)


In her book Vulnerable People: A View of American Fiction since 1945, Josephine Hendin sees in contemporary fiction an attempt to lessen emotional tensions by mechanizing our lives: “We cultivate cynicism like orchids…. Irony is a national attitude, the forge on which we flatten our fears, control our emotions, and try to become iron people.”(25) Modern writers and critics appear to have accepted Jung’s comment in Modern Man in Search of a Soul that “science has destroyed even the refuge of the inner life. What was once a sheltering haven has become a place of terror.”(26) At one point in Bellow’s novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet, we are told that “at the present level of human evolution propositions were held (and Sammler was partly swayed by them) by which choices were narrowed down to sainthood and madness. We are mad unless we are saintly, saintly only as we soar above madness.”(27)

If the inner life, the private self, is at war with its own impulses and needs, then it cannot reasonably condemn the world for what the self cannot do for itself. If it cannot believe in its own self because that self is “a place of terror” lacerated by self-doubt, tormenting fear, and irremediable aloneness, it has no basis for hating others or the world.

And so the contemporary protagonist drifts aimlessly, like Augie March, because, in the final analysis, he cannot believe in himself, in the worth of his private self, in his own capacity to be a genuine self, in that elemental joy in living we find in Chaucer, Rabelais, and Chekhov. Terrified by aloneness and the seediness of his own private consciousness, he takes this as the unique condition of contemporary life, forgetting what Epictetus said so many centuries ago: “But nevertheless a man must prepare himself for solitude too–he must be able to suffice for himself, and able to commune with himself … so we should be able to talk to ourselves, without need of others, or craving for diversion.”(28)

The failure to achieve full selfhood is writ large in modern literature because it is regarded as unique in its tragic consequences in the age of the bomb. What Benjamin DeMott wrote in the early sixties has not lost its relevance:

   No pollster's survey is required to confirm that people everywhere, at all
   levels of life, have made "satisfactory adjustments," have found ways of
   controlling the desperate awareness of personal helplessness (by renaming
   it "maturity," "disinterestedness," or "sophistication"), have learned to
   half-live with the most intolerable and deeply lodged suspicion of the
   times: namely, that events and individuals are unreal, and that power to
   alter the course of the age, of my life and your life, is actually vested


But if the initial premise is incorrect, if the individual has the power to be and to live and to shape a self, then the Gothic edifice of modern fatalism represents a tragic misreading of human nature and what it is capable of. If the essential conditions of human experience have not radically changed, if man still possesses the capacity to be fully human in every sense, if he can still accept realistically the imperfect nature of his being without concluding that all is lost, then he can dispense with the prophets of doom and go about the business of living and learning, what most people do every day of their lives. How much can one learn by following Joseph Heller’s example of his attitude toward others: “`I can let myself feel for people and I can let myself stop feeling for them,’ he says, quite sincerely. `It’s easy, it’s a skill like an ability to draw.'”(30)

Our world is made up of people who manage somehow, in the midst of instability and universal dread, to maintain their humanity, whose simple courage and decency are never obsolete or irrelevant, who may agree with Marcus Aurelius but who continue to live as he did:

   Of human life the time is a point, and the substance is in a flux, and the
   perception dull, and the composition of the whole body subject to
   putrefaction, and the soul a whirl, and fortune hard to divine, and fame a
   thing devoid of judgement. And, to say all in a word, everything which
   belongs to the body is a stream, and what belongs to the soul is a dream
   and vapour, and life is a warfare and a stranger's sojourn, and after-fame
   is oblivion. What then is that which is able to conduct a man? One thing
   and only one, philosophy.(31)

The contemporary protagonist who abandons the search for what is sane and vital because he distrusts the world and himself betrays what common experience reveals about human beings and the real nature of the self. He becomes the victim of a perverse self-centeredness from which there can be no escape, no rebirth. Unlike Prometheus he will remain forever chained to his barren rock, gnawed by vultures, and haunted by childish dreams.

At the conclusion of the seventeenth-century novel The Adventures of a Simpleton by Grimmelshausen, Simplex reviews his life and admits that he has been deceitful, avaricious, and godless but has now decided to retire from the world to try to renew his life and return to simple truths: “To this end I retired to a wilderness where I began anew the life which once I led in the Spessart: but whether I shall, like my father of blessed memory, persevere in it to the end I do not know.”(32) He will attempt to relearn the simple virtues he experienced in his youth, to find his better self, to gather from his experience whatever will restore his respect for life.

By contrast, what is so depressing in many modern protagonists is their lack of nerve, listlessness, unwillingness to persevere, inability to learn from experience, slavish bondage to adolescent fatalism, preoccupation with their frayed sensibilities, infatuation with the yawning abyss of nihilism. They become so incredibly dull and lifeless because what they reflect is only a part of the truth about what man is, a small truth some of our literary pundits have exalted into The Truth about the human condition.

If we are again to believe in man, we must be prepared in our literature to look closely, lovingly, and realistically at those pervasive assumptions about human nature expressed so axiomatically in the literature and criticism of our age, for we are in danger of losing sight of the larger truth about what we are that unites us with men of all ages and with our fellow human beings who, like us, must find a way to be in this vale of tears.